The Strategist

The Russians are Buzzing the skies all over Europe

03/10/2015 - 13:06

There have been numerous citing of Russian military aircrafts flying with their transponders witched off, and coming close to civilian passenger planes. What should be NATO’s response to such threats?

The Russians are back, flexing their muscles. Their warplanes are increasingly flying dangerously close to civilian aircrafts. And that too with their flight transponders off. Typically aircrafts keep track of each other’s movements through their flight transponders. Two Russian bombers were spotted off the coast of Ireland, flying with their transponders off, so as to avoid detection.

Dublin’s control tower detected them, and delayed the takeoff of a passenger plane while ordering another to steer clear of their path, so as to avoid any occurrence of a mid-air collision or any such mishap. The disclosure of this incident by the Irish government is only one amongst the many close calls that airplanes have had with Russian military aircrafts, over the skies, all over Europe.

Although Russia is in complete denial over the occurrence of any such incident, reports from the Swedish Air Chief also say point an accusatory finger at the Russians.

NATO, has also reported that last year, Russian military aircrafts have not only probed NATO air defenses but they have gone ahead and violated EU’s airspace more than 100 time. And in most such cases, the Russians have been ‘flying blind’, i.e. flying with their flight transponders switched off.

The Russians have been pushing and probing and flexing their military might to no end and as yet, there has not been any equivalent response. Finland’s airspace too has been probed and violated and their civilian aircrafts buzzed; in order to address this repeated incursions, Finland has formally reported the matter to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in the hope of finding a solution to this nagging problem.

The problem is that although ICAO is the governing body for air travel worldwide, its rules however covers only civilian aircraft. They do not "cover the operation of equipment on military aircraft". Which means as far as the Russians are concerned they can continue to fly blind and buzz the airspace of EU countries.

Since the end of the cold war, an understanding had come about, an unwritten gentlemen’s agreement was in place, wherein military aircrafts are supposed to use their flight transponders when flying close to civilian air corridors. This is the standard practice and norm followed by all even when they fly in international airspace. The exceptions to this rule is typically involves military or intelligence gathering missions.

The reported airspace violations and the flying blind during broad day light close to civilian aircrafts, is indicative that the Russians mean to deliberately provoke. At least, that is the conclusion Justin Bronk, a military analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, has come to.

Even if the flight transponders are switched off, these planes are easily tracked by radar. Moreover, every aircraft has a radar signature. And the signatures of the Russian aircrafts are easy to spot and identify. For example, the signatures of the two Russian TU-95 bombers that approached Ireland, are a dead giveaway thanks to their massive wings and propellers.

Near air collisions and such mishaps have been averted upto now, thanks to NATO radars which track, share and collaborate these intrusions long before they reach EU’s border.

As per Bronk, deterrence it is the more meaningful solution, as of now. The message that needs to be sent home to the Russians is that “ … if you enter our airspace, you'll be shot down."


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